After Valterri Bottas’ maiden F1 win in Sochi the fledgling European season moves onto Spain and the Grand Prix in Barcelona, where the teams conduct winter testing.
Vettel leads the championship by 13 points ahead of Hamilton while the constructors championship is even closer with one point separating Ferrari and Mercedes. It is shaping up to be a close battle all season between the two leading teams and drivers with Ferrari having adapted well to the new regulations that came into force this year.
Mercedes typically have qualifying place but the Ferrari has more benign aerodynamics (Mercedes cars struggle for pace running behind other competitors) and a wider window to get the tyres working. Upgrades are due across the paddock for this weekend and they will be keenly watched.
A gap between the two front runners could easily open if Mercedes bring along an updated car to Barcelona that not only carries the aerodynamic and engine steps that all teams will be aiming to bring with this first major upgrade of the season, but also addresses its weight issue. The Mercedes has a long wheelbase, around 8kg over its ideal weight, which equates to almost 3/10ths of a second at most F1 venues.
Ferrari has done amazingly well to produce such a competitive car from where it was last season. However the pressure is on Ferrari as its record on in-season updates has been patchy in recent years. Many upgrades have not had the desired effect and kept pace with other competitors. Anything less than a decent step from them on aerodynamics and engine and the balance could start to shift.
What Ferrari has in its favour is the way it uses the new generation Pirelli tyres, especially the softer end of the range. The Mercedes has a narrower operating window for the tyres, whereas the Ferrari has more bandwidth. This will take some time to resolve.
For Spain Pirelli has disappointingly chosen the harder tyres, despite the fact that in winter testing teams were using the ultra-soft and super-soft tyres at the track quite happily. The harder the tyres the more difficult it is for the cars to overtake or pull interesting strategy moves on each other, so a processional race appears likely and qualifying performance and the start will be key.
Prices for the outright win in Spain speak to a likely close contest: Hamilton 13/8, Vettel 6/4 and Bottas 5/1. As the Ferrari is the slightly quicker car with a wider range of conditions in which it performs then these are interesting prices. However the tyres chosen should suit the Mercedes here, even before we consider the impact of upgrades.
I will be backing Lewis Hamilton to rebound and win at 13/8 with Ladbrokes.